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It was Thursday, December 1, 1955. How should news stories have reported this arrest?

In fact, newspapers said nothing.

The first story was published Sunday, December 4, in the Montgomery Advertiser. The story (reprinted below) focused on Negro leaders planning to boycott city buses. It appeared on the front page but was not the lead story.

The reporter factually noted Parks arrest for “violating segregation laws” and the bus company’s defense that it was only following the law.

The author’s voice made no mention of the reason for the impending boycott, although the article included a letter from Negro leaders stating the purpose. .

The story’s content is also interesting because it was technically wrong in describing Parks’ arrest as being for “violating segregation laws.”

Rosa Parks was originally charged with “disobeying the the order of a bus driver” under Chapter 6, Section 11 of the Municipal Code. Only later was the charge changed to violating of the city’s segregation law (Chapter 1, Section 8), which required the segregation of races on buses.

Thus,  the story, while technically in error, was in fact correct in describing Parks’ offense. The reporter, as did everyone else, didn’t pretend (or probably even consider) that the race-neutral “disobeying a bus driver” law was the issue.

This distinction — between the technically true and the actually true — still handcuffs journalism today, except in the opposite direction.

Today’s professionally trained journalists are good at getting the technicalities right while missing the essential nature of facts. This is especially true of coverage of criminal law. Legal reporters today are true experts, many even law school graduates. As a result, they overvalue the mechanical functioning of law and consider non-legal phenomena — mass incarceration, orphaning millions of children, etc. — as secondary, rather than primary, effects of law.

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The movie poster for the classic newspaper movie Absence of Malice distilled this concept to its essence: “(E)verything they said was accurate…But none of it was true.”

As a veteran journalist, I just spent 10 minutes making sure the above quote was right. It turned out my memory was slightly off. Sally Field didn’t say it in the movie. Now the quote is both true and accurate. I’m not sure it was 10 minutes well spent.

— Dennis Cauchon, Editor, The Clemency Report


Other versions of the Rosa Parks mug shot — notice how cropping and tone effect your response as a reader — and the original Montgomery Advertiser article. The reporter, Joe Azbell, later went to to become communications director for George Wallace during his two presidential campaigns.

 

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NEGRO GROUPS READY BOYCOTT OF CITY LINES

By Joe Azbell
Publication date: December 4, 1955

NEGRO GROUPS READY BOYCOTT OF CITY LINES

A ‘top secret” meeting of Montgomery Negroes who plan a boycott of city buses Monday is scheduled at 7 p.m. at the Holt Street Baptist Church for “further instructions” in an economic reprisal” campaign against segregation on city buses, The Advertiser learned last night. The campaign, modeled along the lines of the White Citizens Council program, was initiated by unidentified Negro leaders after a Negro woman, Rosa parks, was arrested by city police Thursday on charge of violating segregation laws by sitting in the white section of a city bus.

Yesterday Negro sections were flooded with thousands of copies of mimeographed or typed letters asking Negroes to refrain from riding city buses Monday.

SECOND TIME

The letter states:

“Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. It is the second time since the Claudette Colbert case that a Negro has been arrested for the same thing. This must be stopped. Negroes are citizens and have rights.

“Until we do something to stop these arrests they will continue. The next time it may be you, or you or you. The woman’s case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trail. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. If you work, take a cab or walk, but please, children and grownups, don’t get on a at all on Monday. Pleas stay off the buses Monday”.

WOULDN”T GIVE NAMES

The Rev. A. W. Wilson, pastor of the Holt Street Baptist Church said he would not divulge under “any circumstances” the names of the Negroes who asked permission to use the church facilities for the meeting.

“I don’t feel I should give their names out for publication. But the meeting will be open and public and the doors will not be closed to Negroes or whites,” he said.

Asked why he would not provide the names of the leaders of the boycott campaign and the meeting, the Rev. Wilson said that he didn’t know enough about the meeting nor the campaign to provide the information.

“Under no circumstance will I give you the names,” he told The Advertise.

First reports of the boycott came to The Advertiser Friday afternoon when white women reported their maids had asked for Monday off so they could “boycott the city buses” because “we have been asked to do it.”

In the letter circularized yesterday, it was not stated what “for further instructions, attended the mass meeting” was intended to mean. The Rev. Wilson said “further instructions” doesn’t mean anything except “just further instructions.”

NO COMMENT

In Friday’s attempts to locate Negro leaders backing the boycott plan, The Advertiser met with “no comment” and replies of “no knowledge.”

In the Thursday night arrest of Rosa Parks 634 Cleveland Ct., city policemen acted under authority of Section II, Chapter 6 of the Montgomery City Code.

J. F. Blake, 27 N. Lewis St., City Lines bus driver, said the Parks woman refused to accept a seat in the Negro section assigned to her and instead seated herself in the white section. Blake called city police who took the Negro woman to police headquarters and charged her with violation of the segregation law. She will get a Recorder’s court hearing Monday.

J. H. Bagley, manager of the bus company, issued this statement after hearing of the circulars:

“The Montgomery City Lines is sorry if anyone expects us to be exempt from any state or city law. We are sorry that the colored people blame us for any state or city ordinance which we didn’t have passed. We have to obey all laws just like any other citizen. We had nothing to do with the laws being passed, but we expect to abide by all laws, city or state, to the best of our ability.”

Bagley said he first learned of the circulars today when a woman informed him her maid had brought one of the circulars to work with her. Bagley said he immediately went to the woman’s house and obtained the circular and turned the matter over to the firm’s attorney, Jack Crenshaw.

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